Anyone who has read any of her poems or has taken an interest in her life’s story will surely agree that Pauline Johnson was one of the most remarkable and fascinating women of her time.
Born in 1861 and raised at Chiefswood on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford Ontario, she was the daughter of an English mother and her father a Mohawk chief.
This curious mixture of cultural background made Pauline appreciate the high elegance of Victorian English society but also gave her a deep love of nature and a need to immerse herself in the great outdoors.
She grew up reading many of the great poets and this undoubtedly played a large part in how she would express herself as she ventured into adulthood.
Another of her passions, which her father had opened her eyes to when she was still a child, was to paddle her canoe. She became an extremely skilled canoeist by the time she reached her teenage years and would spend many a contented hour peacefully paddling the Grand River near her home. This love of being in a canoe would stay with her all her life and she continued to venture onto the water after she moved to Vancouver in her later years.
She was to become an inspiring theatre performer with her stories and poems, bestowing her audience with a truly unique narrative, which was beautifully presented. She would perform one half of the show in her native outfit and the second half in an elegant evening gown, further engaging the mind of the theatre-goer with this curiosity of two identities.
Pauline retired from the stage in 1909 and then settled here in Vancouver. She loved to paddle the waters here with one of her favourite places being Coal Harbour, which at the time extended all the way into Stanley Park. She never much cared for the name “Coal Harbour”, preferring instead to call it Lost Lagoon due to the body of water being lost to the tide before it was land-locked when the main causeway to the park was built.
Pauline passed away in 1913, just before her fifty-second birthday but her body of work still resonates today. Her poems are stunningly beautiful and give a strong sense of immense depth and thought-provoking imagery. It’s hard not to be moved by her writing, particularly as she had a talent for placing the reader in the moment as though she is sharing the experience with you personally. Part of her poem about Lost Lagoon shows how much she delighted in paddling the area: -
O lure of the Lost Lagoon!
I dream to-night that my paddle blurs
The purple shade where the seaweed stirs,
I hear the call of the singing firs
In the hush of the golden moon.
And this piece that was written about her time by the Grand River but can relate to a piece of nature anywhere: -
Something so restful lies on lake and shore,
The world seems anchored, and life’s petty war
Of haste and labour gone forevermore.
Pauline loved Stanley Park and it was her wish to be laid to rest here. She expressly forbid a monument of any kind to be erected but such was the love that people felt for her that a lasting monument was built anyway. It is worth visiting and it is to be found in a small tree grove beside the Teahouse restaurant at Ferguson Point.
If you do visit her grave take some time and remember what an extraordinary woman she was and perhaps stay a while and soak in some of the peace that the park gave her more than a century ago.
Emily Pauline Johnson (10 March 1861 - 7 March 1913)